Relationships: The Critical Enhancement to Systems Thinking in Organizations

By Maureen Nelson

In the first part of this article, "Systems Thinking in Organizational Career Development Programs " (Career Convergence, June 2008), we examined the problems that occur when a systems approach is neglected in organizational career development programs. In this part, we'll see the high-functioning organization that can be created by incorporating a systems perspective and how to take that success one step further by leveraging the power of the human connection.



Beyond Systems Thinking: The Importance of Relationships

Blessing White's State of the Career Report (2007) reported that the career resources respondents rated "extremely helpful" or "very helpful" involved real people, like career coaches and workshops, while the ones that rated "somewhat helpful" or "not at all helpful" were information-only resources like brochures. Clearly the human factor is an important one:

The interviews we conducted with employees illuminate the survey findings. Advice and insights, not mere information, were recurring themes when people mentioned important career influences. A number of individuals described the impact of "mentors" - either former bosses or higher-level executives who showed them the ropes.

An HR director shares: "I had one such manager. She was not limited to 'the obvious' or to what immediately impacted my job. She helped me create opportunities and contact with other executives. She also coached me on the best way to approach this."

Of relationships in organizations, Wheatley (2007) says,

Relationships are the pathways to the intelligence of the system. Through relationships, information is created and transformed, the organization's identity expands to include more stakeholders, and the enterprise becomes wiser. The more access people have
to one another, the more possibilities there are. Without connections, nothing happens. Organizations held at equilibrium by well-designed organization charts die. In self-organizing systems, people need access to everyone; they need to be free to reach anywhere in the organization to accomplish work.

Leverage Points for Change

In Part 1, we introduced the Organization Performance Model (Slingsby, 2007), which names six leverage points where changes in management's policy and behavior can profoundly affect organizational results:

Nelson OPM2


An organizational intervention could consist of brainstorming ways to shift practices in each area, while at the same time attempting to find solutions that encourage human exchange. Revisiting the dysfunctional company used as an example in the first article, these interventions could be applied:


  • Performance Appraisal: Use as an occasion to discuss opportunities; candid talk
    between manager and employee regarding skills, abilities and potential of employee
  • Training & Development:Available to all; managers support it (give employees paid time off); training needs to be regularly assessed; offerings modified as needed
  • Career Development Plans for all employees
  • Succession Plans to identify and grow key management talent


  • Create mentoring program (include reverse mentoring and skill-based mentoring)
  • Train managers in career coaching techniques and initiate the "career discussion"
  • Create job shadowing for high school students and internships for college students


  • Mentors support career plans, give feedback, connect employees to others in
    company; help new employees assimilate company culture
  • Employees visit schools and colleges to talk about their jobs, the company and the industry
  • Institute college recruiting program to keep new talent in the pipeline; company sponsors mixers/events


  • Encouragement/acceptance of informational interviewing inside/outside company
  • Encourage establishment of employee affinity groups and resource groups to help departments cross-pollinate; mandate sponsorship by senior managers
  • Development Opportunities:Give employees opportunity to serve on committees and task forces, leading special projects
  • Create a corporate social networking site to facilitate mentoring, attract recruits (including rehires) and keep contact with retirees (who might serve as occasional consultants)


  • Advisory committee for career development program (provides decision making support) composed of HR managers, line managers, employees, outside career consultants


  • Recognition of individual and team achievements/efforts

Revisiting the "Organizational Results" part of the larger OPM quad, what improved results can we expect with the implementation of a well-supported career development program? (By "well-supported" we mean it is based on a needs assessment, sufficient resources, top leaders' support, continuous evaluation, and it is integrated into HR structures.) The graphic below shows the transformation possible:

Nelson ORG results


The Bigger Picture: The Talent Management Program

Stepping back a bit, we recognize that a good career development program does not exist in a vacuum. Ideally, it is part of a comprehensive talent management program " or system " comprised of recruiting strategies, global workforce planning, diversity initiatives, technology systems, competency models, assessments to identify high potentials, performance management systems, compensation structures, management training, executive coaching, and succession plans - and all must be aligned to organizational goals. Berger & Berger (2004) discuss these components at length in The Talent Management Handbook: Creating Organizational Excellence by Identifying, Developing and Promoting Your Best People. As demonstrated in this article, proper leverage of an integrated career development program - one that takes into account processes and relationships can make life easier on HR and provide a career path for employees - making it more likely that workers will want to stay with the company. Whether tasked with recharging an old career development program or creating a new one, career consultants will find success a little easier by taking a systems approach. And as career counselors, certainly we bring an appreciation of the social aspect of successful organizations.


Berger, L. A. & Berger, D. R. (2004). The talent management handbook: Creating organizational excellence by identifying, developing and promoting your best people. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

State of the career report 2007. (2007). Princeton, NJ: Blessing White, Inc. Retrieved as PDF on November 24, 2007 from http://www.blessingwhite.com/research.asp

Wheatley, M. (2007). Finding our way: Leadership for uncertain times. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Maureen NelsonMaureen Nelson has an M.A. in Career Development from John F. Kennedy University, where she was named 2008 Student of the Year by the School of Management. She also won the 2008 Career Convergence Award for best article written by a graduate student. She recently landed a job at Goodwill of San Francisco, where she works as a Career Advisor / Employment Specialist. She can be reached at mpn@dorsey.org

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